The Next Building Block in Pacific Defense: The US-Philippines Defense Agreement, 2014


2014-04-29 At the conclusion of his latest visit to Asia, President Obama signed an agreement with the Philippines on defense cooperation.

According to a VOA story:

The deal, known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, will enable U.S. forces to train and conduct exercises with the Philippine military.  

At a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Obama said the agreement is not about returning U.S. troops permanently, nor is it about dominating this country that it once ruled.

“I want to be very clear. The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases,” he noted. “At the invitation of the Philippines, American service members will rotate through Filipino facilities.”

The president also said a new security agreement signed with the Philippines is not meant to “counter” or “control” China. He said the United States has a constructive relationship with China and “our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of international disputes.”

This agreement has been signed just prior to the annual Balikatan exercises with the Philippine armed forces.

With the agreement, it can be easy to miss the point and simply focus on the US pivot to the Pacific.

This is about Pacific defense being built by the US and its allies to deal with 21st century challenges; it is not simply about the US armed forces. 

The leaders of the Philippines recognize the dynamic strategic environment and see the US and other allies are crucial to their own defense and security.  The question is how best to promote those interests in the presence of changing threats and technologies.

The recent relief mission in the Philippines brought US, Japanese and other allies to the support of the Philippines.

In this crisis, the USMC and USAF worked hand in glove with support from the US Navy to insert a force to help get the relief effort started and largely withdrew within three weeks

We published a wide range of reports on Operation Damayan earlier and the conclusion of those reports underscored the evolving approach of the US military in the Pacific:

On the US side, the story is rather a straightforward one: the USMC, the USAF and the USN came rapidly, created infrastructure within chaos to allow for the relief effort to follow and then within two weeks the core insertion force had left.

This is a story of coming to the aide of the Philippines rapidly as only the military can do, and bringing core pieces to the effort which allowed the follow-on forces, in this case relief agencies and personnel to follow.

In other words, the US military demonstrated a rapid insertion of support and an ability to leave rapidly as well and this operational capability underpins the evolving defense relationship as well.

The ability to rotate forces in support of missions is a key focus for US forces in the decade ahead. 

The PACAF Commander, General “Hawk” Carlisle has coined the term “places not bases” as his command’s way of discussing working with partners and allies throughout the region providing logistical support and coordinated capabilities which allow the US and those partners to work together in a variety of contingencies.

Lt. General “Guts” Robling, the MARFORPAC Commander, has focused on the key role of rotational forces in enabling USN-USMC forces engaged in a distributed laydown in the Pacific.

The new MRF-D is now working with the Australian Defense Force during a 6-month rotation in Australia.

Rotational opportunities are a crucial building block in shaping the deterrence in depth strategy which the US and its allies are engaged in in shaping 21st century capabilities.

But rotation will put demand on the “connectors” which allow forces to operate in such a manner.

In an interview with Lt. General Robiling he highlighted the impact of the enhanced demand signal.

The demand signal goes up every year while the cost of using the lift goes up every year as well.  This has me very concerned.

The truth of the matter is the Asia Pacific region is 52% of the globes surface and there are over 25,000 islands in the region.  The distances and times necessary to respond to a crisis are significant.  The size of the AOR is illustrated in part by the challenge of finding the missing Malaysian airliner.

If you don’t have the inherent capability like the KC-130J aircraft to get your equipment and people into places rapidly, you can quickly become irrelevant.  General Hawk Carlisle uses a term in his engagement strategy which is “places; not bases”.

America doesn’t want forward bases.

This means you have to have the lift to get to places quickly, be able to operate in an expeditionary environment when you get there, and then leave when you are done.

Strengthening our current partnerships and making new ones will go a long way in helping us be successful at this strategy.  We have to be invited in before we can help.  If you don’t have pre-positioned equipment already in these countries, then you have to move it in somehow.

And, right now, we’re moving in either via naval shipping, black bottom shipping, or when we really need it there quickly, via KC-130J aircraft or available C-17 aircraft.  Right now, we are the only force in the Pacific that can get to a crisis quickly, and the only force that operates as an integrated air, sea and ground organization.

At the time of the signing of the defense agreement, the Philippine’s Defense Minister, Voltaire Gazmin underscored the interest of his government in such an agreement.

The document we signed not only manifests a deepened relationship between the Philippines and the United States but equally serves as a framework for furthering our alliance, as encapsulated in the title “Enhanced Defense Cooperation.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, meets Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, Aug. 30, 2013. DOD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, meets Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, Aug. 30, 2013. DOD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

Underpinned by the common goal of being able to meet the security challenges that both the Philippines and the United States share in common, our alliance has continued to evolve as both our countries continuously search for mechanisms that would enhance our individual and collective abilities to face such security challenges.

At a time when external armed attack was the key concern, we forged the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and put in place a Mutual Defense Board (MDB). When non-traditional security challenges came at the forefront, we entered into the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which enabled our forces to train together and established the Security Engagement Board (SEB).

And today, as defense and security challenges have become more complex, we (both the Philippines and the United States) have realized the utility of having an agreement that would further enhance our ability to face those complicated challenges.

Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and I had the opportunity to talk about the important role which the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement would be playing in the furtherance of the relationship of our defense and military establishments.

This agreement allows us to work on what is called for under the MDT, which is the development of individual and collective capacities, and sustains our ability to undertake what is possible under the VFA which are training and exercises. Most importantly, it enables us to do more by making necessary equipment and infrastructures available whenever they are needed for the exercises and other activities that we do as allies.

While this agreement allows us to do more, let me emphasize that it remains anchored on the principles encapsulated in the MDT and guided by what is possible through the VFA.

Alliances evolve. Partnerships develop. Engagements mature. But all throughout, it is the shared thrust to move forward together that keeps what is in place such as the MDT and the VFA relevant and offers the prospects of having new mechanisms, such as this agreement, possible. This is the essence of a maturing relationship. This is the spirit behind this agreement.

Editor’s Note: For a look at the key role of exercises for the US and the Pacific allies see the following: